Monday, January 24, 2011

"The Tenderness of Wolves" by Stef Penney, reviewed by Rita Bailey

This book is a must for all who love to read - or write - historical fiction, murder mysteries, or just a good love story! I first picked it up at my local library, hoping to find a model for some of the problems that were plaguing my writing - how to blend description into the narrative without dragging it down, how to change point of view, how to introduce new characters.

I got all that plus a damn good read. From the first sentence - "The last time I saw Laurent Jammet he was in Scott's store with a dead wolf over his shoulder" - I was hooked.

Stef Penney makes her debut as a novelist in this story, set in the Canadian North in 1867. A man has been murdered, a woman discovers her teenaged son has disappeared, and the Hudson Bay Company is searching for stolen furs.

As a reader, I often find myself skipping over boring description, but in this book I didn't have to. Ms. Penney deftly conveys a sense of time and place without getting bogged down in pointless details. We see the gleam of moss in the forest, breathe the thin, sweet air, feel the aching cold of the frozen lake, but it never detracts from the forward motion of the plot.

The story begins in the first person, and is told mainly through the eyes of the protagonist, Mrs. Ross. Interspersed throughout this narrative, Ms. Penney uses the third person to gradually introduce a whole village of compelling characters and interwoven plot strands. Traders, trappers, treasure seekers, native guides, and fugitives trudge across the frozen tundra, all following the same tracks, each searching for something different.

Another interesting aspect of Ms. Penney's style is chapter length - varying from two to thirteen pages. Each chapter is a scene, like in a movie, and when the setting or the characters change, we have a new chapter. This adds to the lively pace, and makes for crisp writing.

Like all really great fiction, this tale is bigger than the characters portrayed, as it examines the politics of the Hudson's Bay Company, the treatment of Native people, and the dialectic between insiders and outsiders in shaping Canadian culture. A perfect book for a cold Canadian winter night!

Rita Bailey lives and writes in downtown Hamilton where she can be found cultivating cats, heritage vegetables, and fireflies. Other interests include hiking local trails, working with environmental and social justice groups, and talking to plants. These activities have a way of weaving themselves into her stories. Currently she is working on a historical fiction about her hometown of Hamilton.

For information about Brian Henry's writing workshops and creative writing courses, see here.

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